Man Overboard! What To Do If Someone Falls Off the Boat

You need to act fast when someone falls off a boat, as any hesitation could make the difference between life and death for the man (or woman) overboard. 

Man overboard safety tips

“Man overboard” emergencies account for a fairly large percentage of boating fatalities. And those fatalities don’t all happen in extreme weather conditions as some would think. More often than not, man overboard fatalities involve fishing and/or alcohol consumption during recreational boat use.

There are three important actions to remember for recovering the victim in a man overboard situation:

  • React immediately
  • Approach the victim
  • Retrieve the victim 

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React Immediately

When a person falls overboard, you need to react immediately to first avoid striking the victim with the propellers, and then to retrieve the victim as quickly as possible.

Man overboard boating safety tips

Take the following steps during the “reaction phase” of a man overboard situation:

1. Shout “man overboard!” the moment a person falls off a boat to alert everyone onboard of the situation.

2. Cut the engine to prevent the propellers from injuring the victim.

3. Turn the boat toward the side the victim fell from to swing the stern and the propellers away from the victim.

4. Press the MOB (man overboard) button on your GPS if you have one to mark the initial position the person went overboard and help you navigate back toward them.

5. Throw as many flotation devices (life vests, life rings, cushions, etc.) as possible to the victim to help them stay afloat, reduce their panic, and mark their position.

Assign a passenger to monitor and point at the victim as you maneuver the boat back to their position.

NOTE: A GPS won’t account for the victim drifting due to waves or tides.

Boating safety man overboard tips

Don’t jump into the water to aid the victim, except in special circumstances such as when the victim is injured or is a child. The person jumping in must wear a life jacket, and be tied to a lifeline, physically fit and a strong swimmer, preferably with water rescue training. If the situation seems life-threatening (for example, the victim is unconscious or the conditions are extreme), send a mayday signal on channel 16 of your VHF marine radio to alert the Coast Guard and any nearby boats about the emergency. 

NOTE: Don’t be afraid to send a mayday signal. It's ok to cancel it if you manage to safely retrieve the victim.

Man overboard tips

Approach the Victim

When returning to the victim, you’ll have to decide on the best direction of approach. This will largely depend on the boating conditions, such as wind, current and waves. 

Boating safety man overboard tips

Take the following steps in the “approach phase” of a man overboard situation:

1. Maneuver the boat so the bow is pointed into the wind and/or waves, or downwind from the victim. This makes the boat easier to control, reduces the chance of it drifting into or past the victim, and increases the likelihood the victim will drift toward you.

2. Approach the victim from the boat’s helm side at a slow speed to get the best possible view of the victim. 

3. Have the person(s) who’ll be retrieving the victim positioned and ready as you begin to approach.

4. Turn off the motor as you get close to reduce the chance of the propellers injuring the victim.

5. Throw the victim a flotation device with a boat line attached to it so the victim can still grab the line if you throw the device too far.

Man overboard flotation device

Retrieve the Victim 

How to bring the victim back aboard depends on your boat, the gear you have available and the number of other people onboard. 

Man overboard safety tips

Pulling a person in from the water isn’t easy, so assign the fittest people you have onboard the responsibility of retrieving the victim using the following methods:

Swim platform or boarding ladder: Pull the victim to it and help them climb back into the boat.

High freeboard: Loop a line around the victim’s back and under their armpits, then pull them up and into the boat.

Low freeboard: Grip the victim by the wrists and have them grip you by the wrists, then pull them up and into the boat.

If the boat is small and you’re worried about balance and stability, pull the victim up from the stern in the same way as a low freeboard.

Boating safety life preserver ring

For an unconscious victim, have someone enter the water only if the conditions are safe enough to make the rescue easier. The person entering the water must be wearing a life jacket, and be tied to a lifeline, physically fit and a strong swimmer. If nobody aboard fits that description, keep the victim next to the boat and wait for assistance to arrive after sending a mayday signal.

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Practice for a Man Overboard Situation

To see just how difficult it is to retrieve a person who has fallen overboard, try this simple practice exercise.

1. Tie something buoyant such as a personal flotation device (PFD) or a boat fender to a large bucket.

2. Get your boat up on plane and throw the PFD and bucket over the side.

3. Follow the procedures listed above to try and bring the bucket back onboard.

Man overboard safety tips

This exercise should show you how long it takes to stop and turn your boat; how to safely maneuver back to the bucket’s precise location; and just how difficult it is to lift a weighed-down bucket up from the waterline and back into your boat.



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